Collects: Ultimate Power #1-9
Writers: Brian Michael Bendis, J. Michael Straczynski and Jeph Loeb
Penciler: Greg Land
Inkers: Matt Ryan and Jay Leisten
Colorists: Justin Ponsor and Sotocolor's A. Crossley
Letterers: Chris Eliopoulous, VC's Cory Petit and Comicraft's Albert Decshesne
Cover: Greg Land
By Dan Toland
30 January 2008 — In which the Ultimate Universe finally gets to experience the joys of an all-expansive ginormous crossover that will change! Things! FOREVER! (A little.)
This should start with a quick note regarding my familiarity with the Ultimates Universe: I have virtually none, currently. I bought the first Mark Millar / Bryan Hitch run of The Ultimates religiously, but when they stopped being able to print them on time every month I eventually lost interest. I liked Ultimate Spider-Man a lot, though I never actually purchased it (I always read my buddy's copies for the couple of years he was into it). I've never picked up Ultimate FF or X-Men. So, I came into this miniseries pretty fresh. Of course, this means that as I lay down some deep and meaningful revelations, you will undoubtedly roll your eyes, say, "No shit, Dick Tracy," and suddenly realize your mother was right — your time could have been better spent playing outside.
Still here? Sweet.
Reed Richards is making his latest attempt to cure Ben Grimm of his mutation. For reasons which, I admit, I was unable to completely comprehend, he has to go poking around in other dimensions to do it. SHIELD shoots down his request for funding, tells him pointblank not to do it and, naturally, Reed being Reed, he does it anyway.
This turns out not to go so well.
Over in the Squadron Supreme's universe things could really not be going any worse. A strange virus... organism... thing... is spreading like wildfire, destroying everything in its path, murdering millions. The Squadron can't slow it down, much less stop it. Even Hyperion, this Earth's most powerful hero, finds himself affected by the virus. And when he reaches into the organism, he pulls out one of Reed's data collection units. The Squadron then makes their way to the Ultimate dimension to arrest Reed for mass murder. And there you have it; that sets up the first gigantic, over-the-top action scene for which the Ultimate line is justly famous.
Once the obligatory fight dies down, Reed goes quietly, which doesn't sit terribly well with Nick Fury. The rescue effort — with the Ultimates, Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four — sets us up for the much bigger and hugely impressive second over-the-top action scene for which the Ultimate line is justly famous. This time, however, it's on the Squadron's homeworld, and takes up about the last two-thirds of the series.
There are three writers on this title, and it shows. Bendis starts the story off in a way that indicates he understands that an event like this is going to bring in people who might be unfamiliar with some of the characters. The first issue deals almost exclusively with the Fantastic Four, and has enough characterization, dialog and action to really get the personalities of these characters across (naturally enough; after all, it is Bendis). We're eased into the crossover slowly, and, thanks to Bendis' writing, you come to care about the FF. You honestly want to see what happens as an outgrowth of the story, not because you paid your $2.99 and demand to see punches thrown. The next two issues keep up the quality, even though the second is a 32-page fight, and the third is almost pure exposition. The dialog is smart and witty, and the pace rolls along nicely.
Unfortunately, in #4 Bendis passes the mic off to Straczynski, and you can actually hear screeching tires as the pace grinds to a halt. We spend not one, not two but five full pages on how clever and funny Spider-Man is. Which, normally, he is. Here, not so much. That, and the next two issues have the Ultimate heroes traveling to the Squadron's universe to join the battle. Or something. It's unfortunate that Straczynski had to follow Bendis on this title; I don't hate his writing for the most part, but he's not in Bendis' class.
Neither, for that matter, is Loeb who finishes off the final three issues, but he is an improvement. The characterization is back, and as the story actually progresses to its conclusion, something comes out of left field that I honestly did not see coming. Even though this followed several other things which I most definitely did see coming, I have to give the writers their due for that. In the end, the tone, at least, is consistent throughout, and Bendis' stamp is on the series; it's got a dim view of the trustworthiness of people who do the government's work, and things come out of the series that have gone on to cause ripples throughout the Ultimate line.
The different characters are all used to varying effect. This is primarily an FF story, but Spidey and Nick Fury are also front and center here. While various
Avengers Ultimates get decent screen time as well — a colossal battle scene without Thor making a speech and then blasting the hell out of whoever's in front of him is like a day without sunshine — the X-Men might as well not have shown up. And then there's the Squadron Supreme.
I've always had a soft spot for the Squadron, ever since I was a kid. They always worked on the level of a JLA pastiche, but it wasn't until Mark Gruenwald's 1985 miniseries that they worked on any level other than "Boy, it sure would be fun if the Justice League and the Avengers had a big fight." Gruenwald's series isn't one you hear about very often when people talk about great comics from that era, but it was definitely one of the most mature and well-written things Marvel was putting out at that time. This series builds on that, and you're actually allowed to forget for a while that Doctor Spectrum is basically Green Lantern with a gem on the back of his hand. They don't have a lot to do in this miniseries other than be the aggressors, but the writers do everything they can to let us see the Squadron talk, interact and basically be as well-rounded as they can considering the limited space they're given.
Okay, the art. Greg Land is a controversial artist, and not without good reason. On one level, these are very, very pretty pictures. Taken panel by panel, there are some amazing images here. His Thor, in particular is hellishly impressive. His art is truly photorealistic in a lot of places. Of course, that's mainly because he traces photos. I'm not going to argue the ethicality of this; that's up to people better versed in copyright law than me. I will say that it makes for a very jarring experience in a lot of places; people look very stiff and awkward at times, Sue Storm's hairstyle changes panel to panel, and there are the occasional extreme close-ups of facial expressions. And frequently, those expressions are taken from... certain photographs of a perhaps more... adult nature. I've never been punched so hard I was lifted off the ground and sent flying across the room, but I have to assume that if I ever were, my instinct would not be to smile and give my best O-face. It really takes you out of the moment when you're trying to either ignore the odd way the ladies are splayed, or trying to figure out who it is Mr. Fantastic looks like in a certain panel, and then suddenly realizing it's a Topher Grace publicity photo. I have a hard time getting my head around all this. With all that said, if you can get your head around all this, it's gorgeous.
This series is never more or less than a pleasant enough diversion. When it's fun, it's a lot of fun. Unfortunately, it peaks early (while it's warming up), but it never becomes a bad story; if a series starts off as something special, and then goes to being merely solid, it's not ideal. I nitpick a lot, but really, on the whole, this is worth a look, especially if you're a fan of Ultimate Fantastic Four. Personally, I'd skip the hardcover and wait for the trade paperback.